Alex Ovechkin has teased everyone before. He’s had stretches the past two seasons in which he reminded us of the ebullient star who lit up the NHL from 2005-2010, only to disappoint as he disappeared again. But this feels different, doesn’t it? For one, Ovechkin’s recent goal-scoring splurge has been sustained over the course of two weeks. It’s also coincided with the Capitals’ struggle to secure a spot in the playoffs. Beginning with his overtime winner against the Lightning on March 8, he's produced nine goals in seven games, or 43 percent of the team’s offensive output during that span.
The 10 goals he’s recorded in March, in fact, are the most Ovechkin has mustered in a single month since he notched 14 in Oct. 2009, while the five-game goal scoring streak is his longest since Jan. 31-Feb. 7 2010. And although he remains on pace for the lowest point total in his career, he's reemerged on the league leaders list for goals, vaulting into a tie for fourth place with the Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, just one behind the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik for third. Now the question is whether Ovechkin can boost the Capitals past Ryan Miller and the surging Sabres, who have won four in a row and gained points in eight straight (6-0-2).
A victory Tuesday would give Washington a two-point edge in the race for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff berth with five games remaining for both clubs and the Capitals owning the tiebreaker. Two points also could potentially pull Ovechkin and Co. to within a point of the Southeast Division-leading Panthers. So it could be argued that the Sabres game is the most important regular season contest the Capitals have played since March 2008. It might not be much of a stretch to call it one of the most important nights of Ovechkin’s tenure as team captain. “They’re ready to try and take it from us,” veteran Mike Knuble said. “It’s going to be our mission, our job, not to let it happen.
We’re at home and we have to use it to our advantage.” It also wouldn’t hurt to get another inspired performance from Ovechkin, whose effort against Minnesota harkened back to the reckless abandon he displayed his first five seasons. He recorded a goal, an assist and attempted 14 shots on goal – twice as many as anyone else — and even tried to score while flying through the air a la Superman. Ovechkin's biggest contribution, though, did not show up on the score sheet. With the Capitals clinging to a 1-0 lead and on the power play, Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu stripped the puck from defenseman Dennis Wideman and streaked into the offensive zone, flanked by teammate Cal Clutterbuck.
But Ovechkin wasn’t having it. He hustled back, broke up Koivu’s crossing pass with a perfectly-timed slide and, in the process, singled-handedly seized the game’s momentum as the crowd chanted, “Ovi, Ovi, Ovi.” Later on the same power play, Ovechkin earned an assist on Mathieu Perreault’s goal. “That was the turning point of the game,” Knuble said. It was also the kind of play that $9 million, lead-by-example captains are expected to make when the season hangs in the balance. So why the turnaround for Ovechkin? Just like the mystery surrounding his sudden downturn, questions about it are met with a shrug. “I don’t know, man,” Knuble said. “But you’re seeing some of his classic goals.”
Could it be Ovechkin realized that missing the playoffs would leave a lasting stain on his legacy? Perhaps recent criticism prompted him to respond with an “I’ll-show-you” mentality. Both theories were floated after the game.Ask Ovechkin to explain what’s changed, and he plays coy. “Nothing,” he said. “Just the puck goes in.” Ovechkin did note that a big increase in ice time on Sunday gave him a jumpstart. With 11 forwards and seven defenseman in the lineup, Coach Dale Hunter put Ovechkin’s name on the lineup board in the dressing room as the left wing on both the first and fourth lines. He skated 26 minutes 19 seconds, marking the second-highest ice time total he’s received all season.
That figure contrasts sharply with the 18:51 he played in Friday’s 4-3 loss to Winnipeg. Despite scoring two goals in that game, Ovechkin inexplicably finished with less ice time than grinder Jay Beagle. “Probably two years ago, I have that kind of trust [and] I play every third shift all game,” Ovechkin said of double-shifting against the Wild. “So I feel pretty good. I feel sharp. I was in the game. I was fresh. It was good for me.”Whatever the reason for Ovechkin’s apparent return to form, it’s time to temporarily suspend the search for answers. It’s time to enjoy the ride.
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